In the end, the MLS is Back Tournament bubble worked. Unfortunately for MLS, as teams return to their home markets, they can’t take the bubble with them.
After an initial spate of positive tests for COVID-19 resulted in the withdrawal of FC Dallas and Nashville SC from the tournament, MLS went the past three weeks without a single person inside the bubble in Orlando, Florida, having a confirmed positive test. A tournament that began with immense tension is set to conclude on a triumphant note with Tuesday’s final between Orlando City SC and the Portland Timbers (8 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN).
“What we’re seeing from sports leagues is what the effects are of more testing,” said Dr. Abraar Karan, a physician at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital working on COVID-19 response in Massachusetts. “You actually pick up cases and you may even influence people’s behaviors knowing that they are accountable to the test. And then you have this component of the basic public health measures like wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding contact with people in the community as much as possible. So it’s a great thing that there have been no more cases.”
MLS is determined to forge ahead with plans to not only resume its season, but also in some cases to do so in front of fans. It is a decision that threatens to undermine the good work it has done in the past several weeks. Sources confirmed reports that following the conclusion of the MLS is Back Tournament, MLS will resume its league schedule starting Wednesday when Dallas and Nashville will play the first of three makeup games they missed in Orlando. Another is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 16.
In an interview with Fox Sports, MLS commissioner Don Garber said that there were plans for fans to attend matches in some cities as long as local restrictions were observed. The Athletic later reported that the first Dallas-Nashville game will be played in front of fans, although local restrictions will limit attendance to 50% of capacity.
A source with knowledge of the situation indicated that around five teams are considering the idea, and must submit plans that adheres to local restrictions as well as those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But recent months have shown that local restrictions aren’t always sufficient to stop community spread. Fans will also be required to wear masks and adhere to social distancing, but such requirements were imposed in the USL when fans were allowed to attend games, and the observance of such protocols was decidedly uneven.
MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott declined to address the prospect of having fans in the stands as soon as next week in an interview with ESPN, but Karan was unequivocal that allowing fans to attend is a mistake.
“This is a continuation of sport seeking profits at the negligence of public health,” he said. “We know that while being outdoors helps, crowds are not ideal at all. And I think it also gives the wrong signal to people that they should feel like it’s safe or OK to be going to games right now when there’s a large part of this country that needs to be really seriously thinking about like a three- to four-week lockdown to get any hope of getting transmission under control as we head into the winter. I think it’s a complete mistake.”
ESPN can also confirm a report from The Athletic that the rest of the league will resume play on or around the weekend of Aug. 21. The first phase of the schedule will consist of six games and be regionalized, including in Canada, where a 14-day quarantine period remains in place for people entering the country from the United States. Whenever possible, teams will utilize charter flights in a bid to avoid overnight stays away from their home city. Twelve more games will be played later in the year so that each team will have played 23 games by the time the regular season ends.
By scheduling the first phase in such a manner, MLS aims to buy time in the hope that by the fall, government restrictions are relaxed and large gatherings, or long road trips, are again feasible.
But in the battle between hope and COVID-19, too often the virus has held the upper hand. While MLS teams were inside the bubble, cases and deaths surged in parts of the country in the wake of loosening restrictions, and several states hosting at least one MLS team — like Washington, Texas, Florida and Georgia — are coping with a high volume of cases.
According to The New York Times, on July 8, the day MLS is Back started, the seven-day average of deaths was 591. By Aug. 6, that mark was at 1,022. Georgia is recording a seven-day average of 30 new cases a day per 100,000 residents, per The Washington Post — the second-worst mark in the country. Texas checks in with the sixth-highest mark, with 28. Florida is at 27, seventh in the country.
Meanwhile, as MLS and leagues like the National Women’s Soccer League, the NBA and the NHL thrived inside of contained environments, other leagues operating outside of a bubble suffered. Major League Baseball was plagued by a series of postponements due to clusters of positive tests in the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals organizations. Closer to the soccer world, a similar dynamic was taking place in the second-tier USL Championship. LA Galaxy II, the reserve team of the LA Galaxy, had 11 players with confirmed positive tests, resulting in the cancellation of two matches. As of this writing, the league has postponed a total of 11 matches.
Those sobering realities aren’t stopping MLS, which is determined to resume the season all while trying to keep players and staff free of COVID-19. MLS’ stance is that it has learned plenty from being in the bubble, and feels capable of creating a safe enough environment for players that the league should move forward.
“As we finalize our plans for returning to play in markets, as we have been here in Orlando, we will be highly focused on the health and safety of all of the participants,” Abbott said. “We will be using what we learned here in Orlando, which is the importance of testing frequently to identify any individuals who may be exposed to the virus so that they can be isolated and cared for. But equally important we will focus on ensuring people continue with practices to help keep them safe, which involves wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, social distancing. If we find at any time that that’s not working, we’ll address it.”
It’s a challenge that is both new and familiar. Prior to the tournament, MLS gradually ramped up practices from individual sessions to full team training. An argument can be made that the approach had considerable vulnerabilities. By the end of June, 18 players from around the league tested positive. That was followed by additional cases with Dallas and Nashville taking place just as the tournament was about to start. It was only once teams got inside the controlled environment of the bubble that matters stabilized.
Now those players will be back in their home markets, where the vulnerabilities are the same as they were before MLS is Back. The good news is that after spending considerable time in the bubble, as well as seeing teammates test positive, the protocols have become more ingrained in the players’ everyday lives. That makes player responsibility less of an issue than it might be for other leagues that are in the process of acclimatizing themselves to playing games amid the pandemic.
Inter Miami goalkeeper Luis Robles recalled how there were two positive cases within the team prior to leaving for the MLS is Back Tournament. While there was no further spread, the experience drove home the necessity for following protocols.
“You could tell that there was definitely a greater observance [after the positives] when it comes to wearing a mask, socially distancing, disinfecting,” Robles said. “And it wasn’t just the players. It was the entire staff, the entire organization.”
That discipline extends to home life as well, with Robles adding that he had to tell his son that he would be playing golf this year instead of soccer in a bid to minimize the risk of community spread of COVID-19.
The downside of playing games in home markets is that most players and staff will spend significantly more time out in their communities than they have during the tournament, increasing their vulnerability, although the level of risk varies. In a locale that doesn’t have a high level of community transmission, the risk is relatively low. The opposite is true in counties that are experiencing high levels of transmission. Throw travel into the mix and the level of risk increases, even as MLS tries to minimize overnight stays and use charter flights.
“What we see in the health care industry is that the majority of people who get exposures or have [COVID-19] are not getting it in hospitals, where there are procedures and policies in place. It’s happening in communities,” said Dr. Steven Pergam, an infectious disease expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, who counts himself a Seattle Sounders FC fan. “So I think that’s the issue, that you can control what you can control during travel, but it’s also home environments and what they do outside of work that is not easy to fix.”
Karan added, “Home-based transmission is a big deal, because in the home, you’re not wearing a mask. You’re not social distancing. You’re sleeping in the same bed as your spouse. So if your spouse is in the community — even if you’re not — everyone she’s exposed to you can consider yourself exposed to, or your kids or your other family members that may come to your house now. Now the risk profile is exponentially greater.”
There’s also the additional challenge of game day operations in each MLS city. A source with knowledge of the situation said that much like it did at MLS is Back, the league will institute a tiered system of access at stadiums, the better to insulate players and coaches from the community. Doing so successfully will require an immense level of communication to those staffers who didn’t live the bubble experience. And if fans are allowed to attend, the complications increase significantly.
One aspect that MLS is considering is to follow Major League Baseball’s lead and make greater use of what is called a rapid point of care test. The nasal swab tests used in Florida had a turnaround time of about 12 hours. The rapid test is less accurate than the nasal swab test, but it can return results in a matter of minutes. That kind of speed can help further lessen the chances of a cluster of cases within a team.
Former Orlando City captain Kaka evaluates the Lions’ run at MLS is Back and recalls playing for Adrian Heath.
But using such a test raises broader questions about allocation of health care resources. In a country where it can take a week to get COVID-19 test results, is it appropriate to be dedicating that much testing bandwidth to professional sports, especially amid a surge in cases?
“I have some real reservations about how a lot of this money going to elite athletes,” Pergam said. “I think there’s a lot of value in sports, and the thinking is it provides people an outlet to sort of feel like life is back and there’s normality, though I’m not sure that’s really true. I think it’s also really important to think about the consequences and what this feels like on a national level when testing is really challenging. It does feel as though there’s certain populations that are getting really a lot of access compared to other places in the country that have very little. That doesn’t feel fair.”
There’s also the question of long-term side effects of COVID-19. The case of 27-year-old Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, who will miss the rest of the season after developing a heart condition as a result of his bout with COVID-19, has garnered plenty of attention, and done plenty to undercut the argument that young athletes don’t suffer any downside in contracting the virus. There have also been reports of brain damage to COVID-19 patients regardless of the severity of their infection.
“You don’t want to look at COVID only in terms of whether or not it kills you,” Karan said. “Because if it disables you, or makes the rest of your life one where you have symptoms of shortness of breath, or fatigue or whatever, then you would really have wished you didn’t get it. Especially if you’re an athlete, and that has any functional effect on your performance.
“We don’t know how long this lasts in terms of symptoms or why certain people have much longer symptoms than others or why certain people’s bodies react a certain way. While we’re figuring this out, I just don’t think it makes sense to put anybody on the line as guinea pigs, especially not athletes who really are dependent on their physical health more than an average person.”
Should the season even continue, especially given the state of the pandemic in the U.S.? MLS has clearly decided that it should. One source said the league had Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, with Plan C being one where the league cancels the season.
After his experience in the bubble, Robles says he trusts the league to make the best decision.
“If they find a way for us to play in-market, and constantly observe what’s going on and monitor the sort of protocols that exist and provide the safe environment in which we can play, then I’m on board for that,” he said. “If they called the season right now and said, ‘OK, 2020 is done,’ I’m OK with that as well.”
Perhaps a better question is: Given the rates of infection across the country — and that includes MLS cities — is MLS better off waiting until the intensity of the pandemic lessens? A source with knowledge of the league’s thinking said that the future impact of COVID-19 is so uncertain, the league feels it is impossible to pinpoint when would be the best time to resume play. For now, MLS is confident that what is in place will work. That doesn’t lessen the concern of some medical professionals.
“I am concerned that maybe this is a time frame that is too early, and we need more information,” Pergam said. “I’m not sure what is the cutoff to say, ‘Let’s move forward.’ I just worry that what happens with COVID is that you don’t actually know there’s a problem until there’s a problem, and it’s already out of the box.”
The box is indeed open. MLS is hoping its COVID-19 exposure can still be contained.